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Speed Data: falling life expectancy—an American tragedy

The main immediate cause is "deaths of despair." Will the trend one day cross the Atlantic?

In prosperous western societies, lives have been steadily lengthening for as long as anyone can remember. In the United States, for example, the last material dip was a century ago, with the Spanish flu that followed the First World War. Progress sometimes slowed—for example, as the epidemic of early 20th century tobacco smoking took its toll—but it never went into reverse. At least, not until very recently.

US national life expectancy actually fell in three straight years, from 2014-5 to 2016-7. Drilling into the data, we have pinpointed why. This is not a population-wide phenomenon. College graduates are not dying any younger. Nor are African Americans. In America’s racialised society, they continue to die several years earlier, but there is progress and the race gap is narrowing.

Instead, the reversal is concentrated among less-educated whites. The main immediate causes—suicide, overdoses and alcoholism—betray despair. A decade on from the recession, and 50 years after the wage of the American working man got stuck, there could be plenty of material causes. But other sorts of deprivation could be just as important, such as the increasing fragility of many less-educated white families.

Deaths of despair are now rising in some British populations, even if not at the same rate. In the years ahead, we will discover whether America’s tragedy will cross the Atlantic.

Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s next book is “Deaths of Despair and the Future of American Capitalism” (Princeton). Deaton discussed the research at a Prospect/British Academy event in June

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